Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
Brexit is a reset moment for immigration policy in Britain – but it is still not clear what choices we will make about what should happen next.
The referendum on Britain’s EU membership asked a broader question – about all of the pros and cons of being part of the European Union club – but immigration was central to the build-up of political pressure that led David Cameron to hold the referendum, and featured heavily in the campaign, too. The majority verdict to leave delivered on June 23rd reflected a broader loss of public confidence in how governments have handled immigration over the last decade and a half, from the Labour government’s failure to anticipate the largest single migration wave in Britain’s immigration history after 2004, to inability of Conservative-led governments after 2010 to deliver on the pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, a broken promise which was almost certainly incompatible with EU free movement.
There has been no shortage of frustrations about the immigration debate that we have had. After the referendum, the question of our future immigration policy is more open than it has been for a generation – so there has been ever more intense advocacy and lobbying from all sides of the debate. Yet there have been few efforts to identify where the common ground might be found.
That will be the aim of the Home Affairs Committee in its first major post-referendum inquiry into immigration policy after Brexit. That it launches in Bedford today signals a recognition across the political parties that it is time to open up a new phase of the immigration debate, in which deeper public engagement will be essential if it is to move beyond the failures of past policy to the changes to our immigration policies that people want to see.
This is the first of eight hearings that will take place in every nation and region over the year ahead to seek views on future policy choices. Feeding into the committee’s deliberations British Future, working with Hope Not Hate, will undertake a National Conversation on Immigration, with an extensive programme of citizens panels in 60 towns and cities, alongside 60 local events challenging business, civic voices and local decision-makers not just to articulate what they want from immigration policy, but to engage with the challenge of how to find common ground. Across Britain, from Bradford to the Norfolk fens, Clacton and Cambridge, Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdeen, there will doubtless be many different experiences of the economic and cultural impacts of immigration. The key question is whether a sense of the common ground can emerge, too.
So getting both immigration policy and the way that we talk about those choices right will require more public engagement, not less. Those who want to defend the economic and social gains which migration has brought to Britain historically now need to rebuild public confidence and consent in how we manage migration and integration today. Those who are sceptical about the scale and pace of immigration need to move from critiquing past failures to come up with workable plans about how immigration can be reduced while meeting the needs of the economy and public services, and offering a fair deal to those who we do continue to invite to Britain.
The referendum debate was often about the trade-off between the benefits of EU club membership and the constraints that come with it. The post-referendum debate has perhaps remained rather too heavily dominated by a debate about negotiating tactics – and how to balance the trade-off between the desires for market access and immigration control. The Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech may change that. It makes clear that the Government will seek to balance these twin objectives, seeking the closest possible free trade deal that does not mean giving up control of migration. That should also prompt a refocusing of the immigration debate. Whatever deals that the Government seeks to strike with the EU27 over the two years of negotiations need to be informed by a domestic political debate in which people have a stake in how we strike the balance between the pressures and gains of immigration.
That is a conversation that needs to be had, and had civilly. A glance across the Atlantic to how President Trump, in his role as Polariser-in-Chief, chose to bring in his new immigration rules in a way that seemed designed to raise the heat and temperature of the debate, will encourage many to work harder to avoid an ever louder, angrier and more polarised debate in Britain too.
So it is fitting that the scale of this local engagement in the National Conversation has been made possible by funds raised by the public in memory of Jo Cox MP after her tragic murder last year. The National Conversation offers a highly appropriate way to reflect her commitment for the common ground, something reflected in her final piece for the Yorkshire Post about engaging with public concerns over immigration.
Brexit means there are big choices ahead on immigration – and there will always be disagreements over what the right choices are. Restoring trust in how we handle immigration in Britain is bound to be challenging. There will be no way to do that without a much clearer sense that we can all have a voice in how to get our future policies right.